Remembering ‘Gateway to Strangeness’

by Paul Gilster on June 25, 2005

One of the earliest appearances of solar sails in the American science fiction magazines was Jack Vance’s “Gateway to Strangeness.” Appearing in the August, 1962 issue of Amazing Stories (two years after Cordwainer Smith’s solar sail story, “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul,” ran in Galaxy), the oddly named tale is actually an account of a young crew being put through its training aboard a solar sail-powered spacecraft. Invariably, they run into trouble, and are forced to find a way out of their life-threatening dilemma by the hard-as-nails Henry Belt, a space veteran who just might be on his last mission.

Cover illustration for \'Gateway to Strangeness\'The story later appeared with a title more suited to its content — “Sail 25″ — in Vance’s Dust of Far Suns (1964) and in a number of later anthologies, including The Best of Jack Vance (1976). Here’s a snippet, recounting the crew’s work in getting their ship ready for its mission by setting up and securing the huge sail:

“Around the hull swung the gleaming hoop, and now the carrier brought up the sail, a great roll of darkly shining stuff. When unfolded and unrolled, and unfolded many times more it became a tough gleaming film, flimsy as gold leaf. Unfolded to its fullest extent it was a shimmering disk, already rippling and bulging to the light of the sun. The cadets fitted the film to the hoop, stretched it taut as a drum-head, cemented it in place. Now the sail must carefully be held edge on to the sun, or it would quickly move away, under a thrust of about a hundred pounds.

“From the rim braided-iron threads were led to a ring at the back of the parabolic reflector, dwarfing this as the reflector dwarfed the hull, and now the sail was ready to move.

“The carrier brought up a final cargo: water, food, spare parts, a new magazine for the microfilm viewer, mail. Then Henry Belt said, ‘Make sail.’”

Would that solar sail deployment turned out to be this straightforward! I remember reading “Gateway to Strangeness” when it came out, and it’s from my still-preserved 1962 copy of Amazing that the quote comes. So little science fiction had been written about solar sailing in those days. There was the Smith story, a classic, and the 1951 article by Carl Wiley in Astounding that laid down the basics in a venue other SF writers might follow. But soon there would be Arthur Clarke’s “The Wind from the Sun” (1964) and Poul Anderson’s “Sunjammer” from the same year (Clarke’s story, confusingly, was originally called “Sunjammer” as well).

What a pleasure it is to recall how the idea of this breakthrough propulsion method gradually established itself in both fiction and theoretical studies. Just before the Vance story ran, Robert Forward pondered the possibilities of beamed propulsion in the journal Missiles and Rockets, an article that was reprinted in December, 1962 in Galaxy. In the scientific literature, the most recent examination of the technology had been Richard Garwin’s “Solar Sailing: A Practical Method of Propulsion within the Solar System,” which ran in 1958 in the journal Jet Propulsion. The idea has been around for a long time, and it’s helpful to remember in the aftermath of the Cosmos 1 failure that great concepts find their way, even if it takes decades to make them happen.

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